Thursday, 2 October 2014

Exhibit B and the Art of Conversation about Racism

I have read thoughtful pieces about Exhibit B in the last few weeks and thought long and hard about whether to add my own voice to the conversation. Most of the pieces have understandably focused on arguing that the work should/should not have been shown. I want to try and offer some thoughts about the debate itself.

Many have argued that closing Exhibit B was an act of censorship in that it limited freedom of expression. Rather than criticising the Barbican for closing it down, a number of writers have blamed the campaigners who were present at the opening night (and some have blamed everyone who signed the petition also). This seems, on first sight, a problematic position - invoking freedom of expression for the artist but not extending this right to those, who for whatever reason, might wish to protest. If one holds that lawful protest equates to censorship, the implications for democracy are very serious indeed. If one holds that freedom of expression is a right, then that right must be extended to those who engage in lawful protest. (Incidentally, few commentators have made reference to the importance of Black-led protest in improving the living conditions of Black people in the UK and globally and how this has included artistic representation in shows such as "The Black and White Minstrels" - perhaps television is not considered art?)

It is perhaps with this in mind that the Barbican statement implied that the protest was not peaceful even though there had been no arrests made by the police on the opening night. Whilst the police have not said that the protest was unlawful in any way, the Barbican statement has been interpreted by some commentators as claiming that it was violent - this seems to me a reasonable reading of the statement, unless the claim that the protest was not 'peaceful' was really intended to mean it was not 'quiet'.  I think that sound and voice are motifs in the debate.

The 'mob' that were 'whipped up into a frenzy' as one writer puts it, were chanting and drumming. (We might consider whether the difference between a 'mob' and say 'a group of autonomous individuals engaged in collective action' is merely rhetorical.)  Inside, the Black performers had been told by their White director to remain silent and to hold eye contact with their audience. Some writers have contrasted their 'dignified' position with those of the protestors. It is not difficult to see echoes of discourses of how Black people should respond to the subject of racism - dignified silence versus loud anger. Bailey's choice of language, in describing the protest as "a violent riot" appears to be in tension with his declared wish to examine "systems of racism and how they dehumanise all who are touched by them" when we consider how such systems have often used narratives of Black people as inherently violent. If we think back to 2011, we are likely to agree that actual rioters get pretty strong legal treatment in this country.

Of course there are many  possible responses to racism, but it is not clear that Exhibit B explores them. And with its all-Black cast, isn't Exhibit B actually about Black people rather than colonialism and racism? Can one tell a story about European colonialism whilst removing the colonialists from the story? Can one tell a story of "the white gaze" without including white people?

Perhaps the white gaze is to be added the moment the audience enters. Perhaps as some commentators have suggested, the piece is for those people who, like the director himself, can gaze on Black bodies and meditate on how they have benefited from their subjugation. This reading of the piece would allow for an argument that our own racialised identity informs (to some extent) how we come to look at racism. I've watched interviews and trailers, but I am still confused as to what the director would make of this claim. I can see that some commentators think it racist to suggest this. For them, questions of who is best positioned to discuss x, amount to another form of censorship. However one can reject an extreme position such as listing what an artist can and can't talk about and still think it important to discuss who gets to speak about what in art.

For instance, I genuinely wonder whether the campaign calling for closing Exhibit B would have been as well supported if it had been possible to point to a number of other recent pieces at the Barbican (and beyond) that had tackled the white gaze. If it was clear that Black artists were supported with public funds in making art that spoke of the brutality of European colonialism, might not people have engaged in strong critiques of Exhibit B but been aware that Brett Bailey's voice was only one in the conversation, rather than the (seemingly) lone voice? I think this complicates the censorship argument which seems to rely on a meritocratic notion that the art that gets funded and seen is the best art. Of course art should (be allowed to) be provocative and to divide opinion. However saying that anything that is legal is art if claimed as such, appears to hand over aesthetic and ethical questions to the law-makers. As an extreme example, it means that the actual enslavement and trading of Black people could be art if it was claimed as such in the UK before 1807.

There is clearly diversity of opinion amongst Black artists in particular around the issues this episode has highlighted. Artists for whom I have the greatest of respect have found themselves on opposite sides of a for/against debate. I do not wish to deny the agency of the Black actors who participated in Exhibit B, all of whom made informed decisions and some of whom have spoken about their reasons for participating. I think it is perhaps slightly troubling that the director has not always used people who consider themselves actors as the work has toured. He appears to be content to find Black people who will consent to participating in the work and are able to stand still and give eye contact. Does using Black people interchangeably in the piece critique the historical denial of full personhood to Black people, or mirror it to some extent? Perhaps the final section of the piece, in which actors write about their reasons for getting involved mitigates against accusations that the actors are not permitted their own voices in the piece. And do those who argue that participants are not "really Black" (I have seen such comments online) not themselves essentialise Black people?

The extent to which the participants can be said to have been 'acting' appears to be a fault line in the debate. Is it reasonable to compare Exhibit B, an art installation, to a film such as "12 Years a Slave" as many have done? Is there a crucial difference in how the audience are positioned? When I watch a film I am a viewer. In an art installation do I become a participant? If my response is part of "the piece" how am I to respond? Perhaps the only appropriate response to seeing Black people shackled is to rush to liberate them? On first hearing about Exhibit B, I had speculated with friends as to what would happen if people entered and did just this. But what if the protestors outside had declared their drumming and chanting as art (which to my knowledge they did not)? We might have had an interesting juxtaposition of public art and publicly funded art.

I think that one artistic response to this episode would be a piece of verbatim theatre on this episode, perhaps accompanied by talks and discussions. Certainly the debates around Exhibit B have reached far more people than the piece itself would have on its planned short run in London. Perhaps we have Brett Bailey to thank for this. Perhaps we have the protestors.